WASHINGTON, Sept. 4 (UPI) -- Government scientific advisers and officials painted a grim picture Thursday of the consequences of a terror attack on the nation's power grid, saying that any outage that lasted longer than a couple of days would reduce urban centers to chaos and collapse the economy.
"With power out beyond a day or two, both food and water supplies would soon fail. Transportation systems would be at a standstill ... natural gas pressure would decline and some would lose gas altogether -- not good in the winter time ... Communications would be spotty or non-existent. ... All in all, our cities would not be very nice places to be... Martial law would likely follow," Paul H. Gilbert of the National Research Council told a congressional panel.
Lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee were trying to see what lessons about the nation's security could be drawn from the massive Aug. 14 power outage, which left 50 million people in the United States and Canada without electricity for -- in some cases -- up to three days.
But Gilbert said that recovery from an outage caused by a deliberate attack could "take weeks or months rather than hours or days."
Such frightening scenarios are not the product of a nightmarish imagination. Gilbert's analysis was based on the work of a high-level brains trust within the National Academies. Nearly 200 scientists, experts and officials worked for six months on the report he cited as the basis for his assessment.
Nor is such an attack beyond the realm of reality. Larry A. Mefford, counter-terror chief of the FBI, told the panel that, "Al-Qaida and other terrorist groups are known to have considered energy facilities ... as possible targets."
While cautioning that there was "no specific, credible intelligence about threats" to the nation's power infrastructure, he said that methods of attack could range from blowing up pylons or power stations to sophisticated cyber attacks on the automated computer-run elements of the grid.
Gilbert called these programs -- known as supervisory control and data acquisition systems or SCADA -- "an open invitation to those who would use computer technology to attack the grid."
But Mefford told the panel that there was no evidence al-Qaida had the ability to exploit such weak points. "We have not seen any indication that al-Qaida possesses a sophisticated computer intrusion capability," he said.
Former CIA Director James Woolsey, one of the panelists who produced the National Academies' report, agreed it was unclear whether al-Qaida or any other terrorist group had the capacity to mount such an attack.
"That would depend on their infrastructure in this country and the extent of their knowledge of the grid," he told United Press International, adding that a successful assault is "a lot easier than we wish it were."
John McCarthy, director of the Critical Infrastructure Protection Project at George Mason University, described how a student of his -- using information in the public domain -- had created a comprehensive map of the nation's entire fiber optic cable network as part of his Ph.D. dissertation.
The document so alarmed officials -- one described it as "a road map for terrorists" -- that they wanted to classify it. His student was "very, very smart," said McCarthy, but his work could be replicated for the power grid. "I am convinced there are equally smart people looking at our infrastructure who don't have our best interests at heart."
Some lawmakers were impatient that -- nearly two years after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and six months after it had been established -- the Department for Homeland Security had not yet completed one of its primary tasks -- a comprehensive survey of the nation's critical infrastructure and its vulnerabilities. "We understand they're working on that," Mefford said.
Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., pointed out that without a comprehensive assessment of the nation's weak spots, it was hard to know where the country needed defending.
"In the absence of that it seems you would have a very difficult time knowing where our priorities should be and where we should spend our limited dollars."
Gilbert said that the August outage could have lasted much longer, and pointed out that it exposed the weakness of the "fragile" power grid, which had "little reserve within which to handle power or load fluctuations."
He said that deregulation and the profit motive had combined to make the system less robust over the past 10 years, as "competitive price (and) low operating costs ... are rewarded with profits and bonuses," leading to "diminishing investments in maintenance and spare parts."